Iraq, a fulcrum of Middle East geopolitics, is trapped inexorably in the Iran- U.S. faceoff. Will it turn into a battlefield for a wider 21st Century war?
Iraq: Centre Point of Middle East Geopolitics
The Middle East includes Southwest Asia and part of North Africa stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. Iraq, geographically and historically, has always been its epicentre. It acts as a strategic buffer between the two major subregions in the Middle East – the Levant and the Gulf. The region is a melting pot of political, economic, social and most importantly sectarian turmoil.
In every decade since the 1950s, Iraq has witnessed a generational change in politics. In the late 1950s, the monarchy was overthrown, the 1960s saw the Ba’ath Socialist Party come into power, and in the late 1970s, Saddam Hussein emerged as the undisputed leader of Iraq. The most cataclysmic change was in 2003 when the U.S. led invasion toppled Saddam, and the American conducted elections allowed the Shia majority to gain political power. This overturned decades of Sunni dominance.
Iraq: The Internal Chasms
The Sunni-Shia sectarian divide plays a prominent role in the political scenario. The Kurds are another group that adds to the complexity of this divide. An informal agreement between political parties in Iraq allows for the Kurds, Shia Arabs and Sunni Arabs to hold positions of power in the government.
The Iraqi government that took over from the interim American occupation authorities has not been able to meet the aspirations of the people. There is a sense of deja vu that democracy has failed the Iraqi people. This has been manifested through intensifying street protests in Baghdad and other cities calling for better governance, accountability, and an end to perceived repression and foreign interference by both U.S. and Iran. Around 550 people have been killed and thousands injured as the Iraqi government and its allies, the Iranian-backed armed factions, have suppressed the demonstrations. These demonstrations led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and the selection of Mohammed Tawfik Allawi as the caretaker prime minister. However, Iraqi politicians failed to agree on a new government, thereby prolonging the deadlock that has been unable to resolve the public unrest.
The External Forces Unravelling Iraq
The external powers, the U.S. and Iran, are engaged in a deadly game of brinkmanship at the expense of Iraq. The Shia government owes the victory over ISIS to the Iranian backed militias. At the same time, the U.S. military presence has helped to stabilise the government from the Sunni backlash.
Iraq is divided on the issue of the American/ Iranian military presence, and a motion was passed in the Parliament asking for all foreign forces to leave. Both the U.S. and the Iranians have ignored all appeals to leave as they have invested too much in the country. However, it is in the interests of both countries to start the process of rapprochement.
Iraq’s vote to remove all foreign military forces from the country is seen as a significant and symbolic move in choosing sovereignty over national interests. This, however, could lead to sanctions from the U.S. and further estrangement of U.S.-Iraq ties. The political interplay here is significant because if Iraqis feel cornered or forced to choose between the U.S. and Iran, they will find it safer to choose Iran.
A Ticking Time Bomb
The growing tensions internally and the instability of the region has direct and indirect effects not only for Iraq but for the entire region. Iraq, under the leadership of Allawi, should first aim to restore stability within the country and end the violent crackdown on protesters. This could then lead to a majority of votes in the Council of Representatives for Allawi to be confirmed as prime minister. The second task would be to focus on measures to alleviate Iraq's crisis, be it corruption, lack of security, and sectarian politics, to name a few. This would require cooperation across the religious divide and the willingness of Iraqis to forego some benefits in order to reset the existing system. Finally, Iraq needs to rethink its relations with all its allies and maintain a balanced approach. It has to decide between enjoying internal political consensus and sovereignty versus military assistance and foreign interference.
India a long-time friend
India has bilateral ties with Iran, Iraq and the U.S. It has managed to maintain its relationship with each of the countries irrespective of the political issues among them. India is an oil-dependent country and imports 84% of its oil needs and 60% of that from the Middle East. While India has cut down its imports from Iran due to the U.S. sanctions, oil from Iraq continues to be one of the major imports. In this context, any altercation in Iraq either military or through sanctions would impact Indian imports drastically along with a surge in oil prices globally.
India has stakes in West Asia not just in terms of economic and political development but also in terms of the Indian diaspora. While India cannot directly question the USA's decision to impose sanctions or act according to its defence and security plan, it can try and promote peaceful resolutions.
Iraq needs a government that can speak forcefully to both the United States and Iran while resisting both countries’ pressure. The nomination of a new caretaker prime minister is not likely to change the trajectory of Iraq’s dysfunctional dynamic and dig the country out of ten years of instability. However, this could be the transitional phase for Iraq. As a first, the caretaker Prime Minister must get the parliamentary approval at the earliest so that a stable government can navigate Iraq out of the mess.
Iraq's political history has largely been based on zero-sum outcomes and therefore, has only led to further instability domestically and regionally. Therefore, Iraq has to rethink its relationship with allies to work towards a peaceful region. The fight against ISIS brought the Shia, Sunni and Kurds together for a common goal and hence Iraq could use this as an example and solve its internal issues and then try to expand that into the region.
The Middle East currently has wars, proxy wars and more; it is home to a number of players that claim stake in the region. Therefore, the stability of this region is not just linked to the relationship between the countries but also to the military-industrial complex that sustains it. In sum, the issue is too complex for an easy fix.